In my early twenties I found myself reduced to living in a twenty-five-foot trailer in a tiny, dying town in far West Texas. There was a certain unresonant symmetry to the experience, as I had lived in the trailer as an infant, along with my older brother and our almost-infant parents. By the time of this second residence, the trailer was in my grandmother’s backyard, where my great-grandmother had lived for thirty years until her death in 1990. My grandmother’s sister—Aunt Sissy, to me—a gentle, whiskery woman with failing health and an obvious but undiagnosed lifelong mental deficiency, also lived in the “big house,” which was a small house with six shadowy rooms, a million immaculate nooks, and museum stillnesses. I read and wrote all day, then sat with my grandmother and aunt in the evenings to pass the time.
Or to recover the time. After college and knocking about in various countries, after falling away from my childhood faith and transferring that entire searching intensity onto literature, it seemed to me that, though I was home again, I would never be able to be at home again. It’s an old story, as is the lost world and wisdom the prodigal discovers beyond his own ambitions and self-assurance. I began asking questions about my family’s past out of politeness and boredom. I ended up arranging my days, my thoughts, and my work around the world that emerged from those conversations: the mythic migration from South Carolina to Texas in the dust bowl; the years spent sharecropping; my grandmother’s many miscarriages; my aunt’s thirty years of waitressing at a cowboy café just off the interstate. God was almost instinctive in them, so woven into the textures of their lives that even their daily chores, accompanied by hymns hummed under their breaths, had an air of easy devotion. I looked down on that unanguished faith at the time, but now, after living with my own vertiginous intensities for all these years, that quiet constancy is a disposition to which I aspire.
Not that there wasn’t, in the end, anguish for them. Sissy died with my grandmother and me leaning over her hospital bed, as we had done for days and nights since she had suffered a heart attack. She was not conscious during that time, but just before the end, when my grandmother and I were leaning over her inert and unresponsive body to tell her that we were there, that we loved her, that God was there and loved her (I didn’t say this), she rose up, took each one of us in her trembling arms (“Praise the Lord,” said the nurse in awe), and then, without a word or even any clear indication that she was conscious, let us go. Later that day she died.
My grandmother was destroyed. Not by grief—she’d had too much of this in her life to be undone by this point—but by the strain of taking care of Sissy during the last year of her life, and then the intense ten days or so when Sissy was hospitalized. My grandmother’s own heart began aching ominously just as Sissy’s finally stopped, and though my grandmother still had a month of modern medicine to endure, she never made it out of the hospital. And so it was that I found myself, just weeks after Sissy’s last improbable act, leaning over another hospital bed trying to understand another dying woman’s desperate gestures. I asked my grandmother if she was cold, and she shook her head no. I asked if she was thirsty, and she shook her head no. Finally I asked—I did not want to—if she was scared and her eyes widened even farther and she began to shake terribly as she nodded yes and tried to form words around her breathing tube: yes, yes, yes. I suppose I don’t know definitively whether she was afraid of dying or of further pain—she had been through so much by that time—but all my instincts argue for the former. I could see a pure spiritual terror in her eyes. I can see it now.
The last words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet and priest who died of typhoid at the age of forty-five, are striking: “I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.” How desperately we, the living, want to believe in this possibility: that death could be filled with promise, that the pain of leaving and separation could be, if not a foretaste of joy, then at least not meaningless. Forget religion. Even atheists want to die well, or want those they love to die well, which has to mean more than simply a quiet resignation to complete annihilation. That is merely a polite nihilism. No, to die well, even for the religious, is to accept not only our own terror and sadness but the terrible holes we leave in the lives of others; at the same time, to die well, even for the atheist, is to believe that there is some way of dying into life rather than simply away from it, some form of survival that love makes possible. I don’t mean by survival merely persisting in the memory of others. I mean something deeper and more durable. If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication—even as, maybe even especially as, our atoms begin the long dispersal we call death.
Hopkins’s last words are striking to me not only because it’s rare and heartening to witness someone expressing joy at an occasion for grief. No, it’s the last sentence that gets me—“I loved my life.” Hopkins was a religious person; he believed in an afterlife. But he seems to have experienced something more complicated than the typical (and, I feel, pernicious) religious sentiment of being happy to be “going to a better place”; the last sentence seems offered as an explanation for the first two: he is happy at the moment of death because he loved his life. On the face of it, this makes no sense: if he loved his life so much, how could he be happy that it was ending so early? The answer, I think, lies in that dynamic of life and death that I’ve just described, that capacity of dying into the life that one has loved rather than falling irrevocably away from it.
As it happens, I have been close to death myself lately. The cancer I have lived with for seven years has of late become aggressive, and many nights in the past year I have lain awake in hospital beds and wondered what last gesture or insight I might manage or be granted, have felt despair rising like a palpable and impenetrable liquid in my room. Though I have not yet known that knife edge of time—and timelessness—that Hopkins and my Aunt Sissy and my grandmother all knew, I have been close enough, and deranged by pain enough, to conclude that one is not always responsible for one’s last acts, nor are they always worth interpretation. Sissy seemed to reach out of the shell of herself for one last loving touch of life. My grandmother shook as if the scream she couldn’t release ricocheted around inside of her. I treasure the memory of Sissy, flinch from that image of my grandmother. Yet I don’t feel that one died well and the other badly, that one received the grace that the other either denied or was refused. Hopkins’s last words are about life, all of life, and its ultimate relation to death. That they occurred at the last moment of his own life makes them more poignant and powerful, but that he had the wherewithal to speak them is chance.
What does faith mean, finally, at this late date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life—in the ongoingness of it, the indestructibility, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with the eyes to see it, love. My grandmother, who was in the world too utterly to be “conscious” of it, whose spirit poured and pours over the cracked land of her family like a saving rain, exemplified this energy, and I feel that to be faithful to her, faithful to this person I loved as much as I have ever loved anyone, I must believe in the scope and momentum of her life, not the awful and anomalous instant of her death. In truth, it is not difficult at all. Nor is the other belief—or instinct, really—that occurs simultaneously: that her every tear was wiped away, that God looked her out of pain, that in the blink of an eye the world opened its tenderest interiors, and let her in.
This essay will appear as part of My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, to be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.